Friday, January 23, 2009

His and hers

Item of the week

We were saddened to hear news this morning of a customer whose wife had just been laid off from her job. He requested that I send his order to a work address, so that he could quietly smuggle it into the house. She is not an avid silver collector, and wants him to keep a lid on the antique buying until the economic picture brightens a bit. He believes that it’s important to keep making purchases for his collection (and elsewhere), or things will continue to remain dim. Who is right? Issues of marital discord notwithstanding, I choose to side with the gentleman. Quelle surprise, non?

Allow me to defend my point of view, which you dear reader no doubt suspect is biased if not downright mercenary. Grand issues such as global warming or worldwide recession tend to make us feel helpless. What can we do, as individuals, to turn the tide against such massive calamities? Well, we can each turn off the light when we leave the room. At least you and I may do so—my kids seem to be incapable of this feat… Such a tiny action seems utterly insignificant in the face of rising sea levels and melting glaciers, but this is hardly the case. The trick is to train one’s self to make the right choice each and every time a course of action which may affect the environment, or for that matter the economy, must be chosen. Then, the summation of these miniscule decisions becomes immensely powerful in solving the problem at hand.

Now back to our silver spoons. Any host or hostess likes to have a fine looking table when entertaining. You could go to Bloomie’s and buy some very snazzie looking servers. But they’re probably made in China, and look better than they really are. Or, you could select a fine item from Cherner’s stupendous inventory. Before making the purchase, ask yourself this question: where will my spoon, or teapot, or tureen find itself fifty or a hundred years from now? Will it be in an antique shop, or taking up space in a landfill? OK, the latter may be a bit extreme, but you get the idea. Buying an antique that’s already been around for at least a hundred years and still retains quality and value is a pretty much a guarantee that no resources will be wasted. It is a small choice which also helps someone, in this case hopefully Yours Truly, retain his job and have a few dollars to spread around in order to help his countrymen retain theirs!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Brimfield, Brimfield, Brimfield...

Publish or perish, that's what they say here in the Blogosphere, but this week we've made the triannual pilgrimage to Brim in search of silver treasures

and our posting is a bit on the late side. Fans of Bruce Cherner Antique Silver are probably familiar with the name, but may not have any idea of what goes on there.

Three times a year, in May, July, and September, the town of Brimfield, MA gives itself over to a gargantuan outdoor antique show, stretching along U.S. route 20 for at least two miles on both sides of the road. The various fields (and we mean fields-- bovine and equine company are always close at hand) open in a staggered manner from Tuesday through Saturday. Those folks with masochistic urges and powerful flashlights start off at 4AM, traipsing through Shelton's and Crystal Brook, then make a quick stop for sustenance at the Pilgrim Sandwich food truck before heading off to Dealer's Choice at 11 and Brimfield Acres North (you'll find us there in September) at 1pm.
What might one expect to discover? Well, anything really and even though junque

abounds aplenty, those with patience, stamina and a knack for sleuthing out all the Ninas in a Hirschfeld cartoon might uncover something

a bit more refined...

Why is all of this important? Our marketplace has many facets. There are traditional auctions, on line auctions, group and single dealer shops, group and single dealer web pages. All of these play a role in providing a steady flow of goods, a "bid/ask" price format, and liquidity for the dealer. But it's also essential to have some old fashioned bourses where buyers and sellers meet face to face, handle the wares, and haggle over prices. Then again, there's a great opportunity for those of us in the trade (including this sinister looking fellow)

to get together, do a bit of socializing, kvetch about the lack of quality merchandise, and bemoan the general decline of the antiques business...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

More about the die sinker's art

Raise the flag and shout out loud, campers, we've got a reader! To answer the inquiry from our commenter Steve, yes, U.S. coinage and for that matter many privately issued medals are die-struck. This inspires me to discuss the latter at some length, not that we ever go to great length for fear of inducing boredom, and perhaps even feature (go ahead, call me harlot) an item from our web page.

Conrad Egge arrived in Boston from Germany during 1867. His business at Province Court was founded in 1872, and he later moved to larger quarters at 97 Oliver Street. In addition to medallic art, he also sunk dies for flatware, engraved seals, and made dies for the fancy embossing of paper and leather goods. As you may see below,

the man had talent. He saw fit to sign this medal "in the die",

visible (we hope) in our enlargement at base of anvil. Allow me to risk redundancy, at least for our huge readership of one, and stress the illusion of three dimensionality created here. Note in particular the lectern, with its books, globe, scroll and quill. Our brain knows they're in the plane of the medal's flat surface, but our eyes tell us that we could reach down and pluck any one of them right off of that desk. Yes, this is partly a result of oxidation-- those dark areas which you seen inside the gears, for example-- and partly because the medal is struck in high relief (in the trade, we say it has "good die-depth"). However, the effect is also due in large part to Egge's skill as an intaglio sculptor.

Finally, a few words about Buff & Buff, originally Buff & Berger. Incorporated in 1898, the company was essentially a working museum from the 1950's until its dissolution in 1983. Inside, there was row upon row of lathes and milling machines, but only a handful had their own power sources. Most were driven by an ancient electric induction motor located in the basement which drove a system of overhead belts and pulleys. Pull the switch on this beast and everything started moving slowly, but once the full power lever was thrown, the entire factory came alive with a rythmic whirring and clacking. The instruments produced there were gems of American industrial design, now sought by collectors here and abroad. No small wonder that they chose to advertise with such an artful piece of silverware.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

But I digress...

Yes, digress, transgress, regress... That's our sad story here.

Let's delay the journey into three-dimensionality for now and talk a bit more about die-struck silver, the next technological innovation after die-rolling and the process by which most grand patterns of the 1880's were produced. Just what is a die? How is it made? Do you stick one into a huge drop press, put a blank in place, pull a lever and BANG out comes a finished piece of Durgin NEW ART?


A flatware die is an intaglio cut image on a piece of heavy, hardened steel which is key fitted into a massive drop press. This requires some serious manufacturing capability. The Gorham factory in Providence, for example, was an iron reinforced structure with Rock Maple floors over an inch thick.

Gorham photo

With designer's model in hand, the die sinker used hardened steel tools to pick out the pattern, alternating between sinking the design and checking his progress by pressing gum into the work, in order to produce a positive image. When completed, the die itself was flame-hardened. At least eight dies were required to make a given piece, the first simply to produce an outline, then each one carved successively in greater detail. Ornate designs such as Durgin's Iris

could require 12 dies per side (the best patterns are decorated front and back,

or "double struck") to manufacture a single spoon. Here is the final die for a Gorham electroplated fork, circa 1910.

It measures 9 3/4 by 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inches, and weighs approximately 25 pounds. So the next time you admire a piece of flatware from your collection, consider the art of the die sinker, cutting that elaborate design, by hand, into solid steel.

Friday, June 20, 2008

What makes it Good?

Let's begin the little bloggie by tackling a big question. Why are some flatware patterns considered to be great, and valued on the secondary market at a premium of ten or more times their silver value, when the vast majority of second hand silver carries no premium at all beyond scrap? Here's a good rule of thumb: the more three dimensional a pattern is, the greater likelihood that it has some appreciable value in the marketplace.

Why is this? Pattern silver as we now know it was launched by the die rolling process, patented by Michael Gibney in the mid 1840's. There are those who might make a case for an earlier beginning in the swaged decorations used on fancy back spoons during the Colonial era, but this primitive flat steel die could only make one imprint at time when struck by hand with a hammer blow. Die rolling allowed for the first mass production of pattern silver, but few of those early efforts such as Tuscan, Gibney, or Mayflower are now sought by collectors. Move forward about forty years, and contrast this with the work of Antoine Heller, arguably the greatest flatware designer of all time. Heller was trained as a sculptor, and his work in bas relief

evokes an uncanny sense of three-dimensionality.

But why settle for an illusion, when you can have an actual sculpture in silver, albeit a miniature, grace your dinner table? That will have to serve as fodder for our next posting...